It doesn’t seem like this issue is going to simply be black or white…
Unless you’ve been living underneath a rock – and a rock without access to Twitter, at that – you’ll be aware that the world has been shaken by Leaving Neverland, the explosive documentary in which Wade Robson and James Safechuck make fresh allegations of sexual abuse against the late King of Pop Michael Jackson.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s currently available on All 4 now. The two-part film is, indeed, very disturbing, but also quite important viewing, many feel. And not just in the hope that the interviews and new evidence it reveals will bring about some justice for the victims, although that intention is obviously at its core. But it also stands as perhaps the most illuminating example yet of the horrors we as a society are potentially capable of turning a blind eye to as a result of our obsession with celebrity.
This, however, is hardly a new awakening. More of a stark reminder, instead. The 21st century has previously brought to light the enduringly ghastly Jimmy Savile case, featured the ongoing downfall of R Kelly, as well as the never-ending Bill Cosby circus. And what do these examples – as well as MJ – all have in common? Well, they share the common thread that despite undoubtedly being shocking they were also… not that shocking. Because rumours, and in many cases, actual evidence, had been present for a long, long time.
The fact we’re actually taking these cases seriously in 2019 is not necessarily because more people are coming forward than they used to, although thankfully, that does also seem to be happening as a result. But rather, we’re just listening to victims now, whereas before we did not. And in many cases, we are still not. There’s a long way to go, still, it seems.
However, I’m not currently hoping to add to the avalanche of think pieces assessing and analysing the guilt of Michael Jackson, as if I have an authority. I don’t. Although, to be honest, I find it hard to believe anyone could watch Leaving Neverland without reaching a unanimous conclusion about the disturbing actions on display.
But rather, I want to examine the mammoth task that the world potentially is setting itself up now. And that is – how exactly do you propose to erase history’s biggest pop star from music? Because make no mistake, that seems to be what we’re now trying to do. It’s a corner we seem to be backing ourselves into.
In fact, it’s already begun. Radio stations have already started removing the superstar’s music from their airwaves in light of the documentary, which originally aired at the Sundance Film Festival – back in January. In New Zealand, Media Works will no longer be playing classics such as Billie Jean and Bad. And in Montreal, Canada, three radio stations have officially taken an anti-MJ stance.
Canadian rapper Drake has reportedly cut the song Don’t Matter To Me – which feature posthumous vocals from MJ – from the set-list of his current Assassination Vacation tour, in the wake of the fresh allegations of sexual abuse against young boys.
However, here in the UK, Radio 2 have decided not to pull Jackson’s songs from their playlist – yet – despite rumours they were about to, which they were forced to clarify.
And, on the whole, many are still on the fence about where to go now, in terms of what to do regarding one of pop culture’s most celebrated catalogues. Undeniably, this would be a far more gargantuan task than has been previously faced by the music industry. Sure, R Kelly is a huge star. Or was. But would not having Ignition played in the club, or I Believe I Can Fly on afternoon radio, be that great of a loss to the world of music? It’s a shame, for sure, as the man certainly found time to produce a lot of good music in between all the other appalling acts he has been accused of. But it doesn’t feel like the musical landscape would collapse without him, does it? Former fans can proudly tweet about removing Kelly from Spotify playlists, burn his CDs, get his attempts to tour cancelled, etc. And they’re well within their rights. It makes sense that people don’t want to play a song, especially on streaming platforms – which benefits the artist financially per stream – and support the individual, if that individual in question is responsible for abhorrent acts on vulnerable people.
But so far, it’s never been this hard. Radio can survive without playing Rolf Harris’ Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport. Thrive, even… And TV will be fine without old re-runs of Animal Hospital. Ancient episodes of Top of the Pops hosted by Jimmy Savile won’t be getting repeated – and the nation can cope with that. Considering the crimes in question, it’s hardly much of a sacrifice, is it?
But then we come to MJ. And this isn’t to suggest that if he was guilty of these crimes, his catalogue should be treated any differently because of his legend status. But let’s face it, it’s just not the same. It would simply not be an easy task, erasing Michael Jackson from music. At all.
The man’s music is everywhere. Michael Jackson is responsible for the biggest selling album of all time, with 1982’s Thriller. Globally, he has sold an estimated 750 million albums, and over a billion records. Something very few people can even come close to claiming. And his influence is everywhere. Almost every major pop star that has emerged since the 80s cites Michael Jackson are a major influence. And it shows too. Watch Justin Timberlake dance. Usher. Neyo. Britney, even, at her peak. MJ’s sister, Janet, obviously. Chris Brown. Lady Gaga – who is such a fan she once even bought a collection of his iconic costumes, and tributed the Thriller dance in her Bad Romance video. Justin Bieber. Mariah Carey. EVERYONE. Do we remove every homage they paid? Every time they wore a crystallised MJ glove, or tried to moonwalk on video? Do we cancel the Bad Romance video because Gaga references he who shall not be named in it?
It’s not a case of simply removing his songs and videos from all media platforms. The man changed pop music in an incomparable way. Jackson changed the music, he changed the look, he changed the moves. He revolutionised the music video, the concert tour, and exceeded what could be done with an album. He broke every record there was available to break. His DNA is in almost every piece of music pop culture that we see and hear.
And now, post-Leaving Neverland – many of us want to try and pretend he never happened. And I understand that. But I hate to break it to them, but I just don’t think that’s going to be possible. It’s just not that simple.
And so now, that’s the difficult challenge the music industry has to face. Something has to change, for sure, but how the hell are we going to do it? It would be hypocritical to give MJ’s music a pass while gleefully removing R Kelly from every platform imaginable. But it is also damn near impossible to apply the same criteria.
Especially since, of course, Michael Jackson is no longer here to defend himself, and will not be facing a posthumous trial for these new accusations. But did that make a difference with Savile? No, it did not.
I don’t have the answers, nor do I pretend to. And judging by social media, this argument is set to rage on for years to come. Many people still believe that Michael is innocent, with opinion polls reflecting that we’re as divided over this issue as the UK continues to be over Brexit. In fact, it’s even been reported that since the documentary, sales of his music have gone up, bafflingly, as fans show their solidarity.
But try and imagine a time when Halloween comes around, and Thriller isn’t played once on the radio. A Christmas where Rockin’ Robin is on the ‘no play list.’ And never hearing Smooth Criminal at a wedding again. That feels almost criminal in itself. And yet, that looks to be where we’re heading. Or where we think we are, anyway.
All I can say is, good luck with that one…